HOW "different" a nation is Japan? How "different," for that matter, is the United States? The questions have relevance as an administration-in-waiting in Washington searches for a new basis for partnership with Japan.
There are many specifics to this partnership. But the interval between the ending of one American administration and the birth of another is a good time to review some of the fundamentals of this relationship between two countries whose cultural backgrounds are so different.
Robert Bellah is an American scholar who has thought long and deeply about these differences, and whether they can be transcended by shared values. He has written about Confucianism as the religion of the feudal Japanese state that preceded the country's mid-19th century entry into the modern world. More recently, he has written two thoughtful sociological surveys of American society - "Habits of the Heart" and "The Good Society."
Not long ago, in a lecture in Tokyo, Mr. Bellah suggested that the major Western contribution to the evolution of a civilized world was the concept of the "fundamental equality of all men," based on the recognition of man created in the image and likeness of God.
This year, 1992, is the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Bellah does not deny the cruelty and greed that accompanied the European explosion into the New World, Africa, and Asia. But he also notes that some of the severest critics of that record came from contemporary Europeans - the missionary priest Las Casas, the French philosopher Montaigne.
Western culture, he suggests, takes criticism as "an obligation - but not the only obligation." Equally important, he holds, is the "obligation to search out and define the moral standard that helps us become better citizens in a better country."
It was in the latter half of the 19th century that these values developed in the West reached Japan, a country nurtured by Buddhist teachings of human life as cycles of suffering and by Confucian concepts of hierarchy. The sense of an individual created in the image and likeness of God reached only a relatively narrow sector of the Japanese elite, and even today less than 1 percent of Japanese consider themselves to be Christian.
But the spirit of scientific inquiry, an important consequence of the freeing of the individual, did take root, though constantly buffeted by the authoritarianism of a hierarchic society.
Bellah does not see traditional Confucian society as valueless. Confucius taught that a good society was one governed by harmonious relationships among men. From a Western viewpoint, the Confucian definition of these relationships seems authoritarian. But Bellah sees a meeting point between Confucian and Western values in a recognition that the individual can only express his values in and through society.
In fact, while Bellah calls strongly for Americans to recognize more explicitly the importance to the individual of the "good society," he insists with equal force that Japanese must pay greater heed to the individual as the basic building block of society.
A Japan more respectful of the individual, and an America more conscious of an individual's obligations to society, could form, in Bellah's view, a partnership contributing mightily to the development of a global community.
The cold war is over, but a new world order to take its place is yet to be constructed. The concept of nation-state, developed in Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia ended the 30 Years' War, has as yet undergone no major revision, although most thinkers recognize that as presently constituted it is too large and remote to take care of local community concerns, and at the same time too small to cope with problems, such as the environment, that concern the entire world community.
Clearly, neither the US nor Japan by itself can bring about, much less lead, a new world order. Every nation will have to be encouraged to sacrifice something for the common good, and it will be up to the bigger nations, the more powerful nations, to set an example.
For Japan, which has no previous experience of leadership in a world of nation-states, the change of outlook required will be wrenching.
And yet, someone has to set an example, and this example has to be based on shared values. Bellah's line of reasoning may seem abstruse, but it is a prime component of the thought that must undergird effective action.